I recently ran into a casual acquaintance, Peter, in the lobby of a hotel where I was staying. I hadn’t seen Peter in many years and almost didn’t recognize him.
After shaking hands, I asked him what he’d been up to all these years, and his response reminded me of something the great Tom Wolfe (The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Right Stuff, et al) once said: “I think every living moment of a human being’s life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status.”
Peter jumped right in and began a fifteen-minute filibuster about his life — his current exploits as a well-known “investment advisor,” his move to New York City a few years ago, he and his wife’s theater outings once or twice a month, their regular frequenting of the Big Apple’s finest restaurants, their visits to their Florida condo two or three times during the winter, how well all of his grown children are doing … zzz … zzz … zzz. Falling asleep while standing is dangerous business, so I did everything I could to keep from dozing off.
Not surprisingly (I remembered Peter’s “I-me-my” personality from years ago, for which he is almost as well-known as for his economic analyses), during his “state of my status” address, he did not ask a single question about me or my family. While forcing an outward smile, I thought to myself, “I can’t believe how hard this little twerp is trying to impress me.”
He was so caught up in talking about himself that it was as though I didn’t exist. It was all I could do to resist tweaking his nose, but the thought of his germs on my fingers kept that uncouth impulse in check.
Sensing that if I didn’t forcibly end Peter’s monologue I might soon turn into a pillar of salt, I waited until he took a deep breath, then quickly interrupted and told him that while I would love to hear a more detailed version of what’s been going on in his life (yes, my tongue-in-cheek remark went right over his head), I had to be moving along because I was late for an appointment.
What status-obsessed Peter didn’t know was that not only was I not impressed with his self-centered bloviating, it totally turned me off. He would have been mortified, I’m sure, had he known that the more he talked, the more I suspected he probably wasn’t doing very well financially.
Being the kind and gentle soul that I am, part of me wanted to share one of my most important success rules with him: The power of the understatement is enormous! I refrained, however, because it makes me uncomfortable to see grown men cry.
The desire to impress others is one of the most painful forms of mental imprisonment. It not only requires a great deal of time and energy, it eats away at a person’s self-esteem as well. There is nothing more degrading than knowing, whether or not it is consciously acknowledged, that you are saying something, doing something, or buying something with the primary purpose of impressing others.
Unfortunately, at one time or another, everyone says and does things that are motivated by the desire to elevate his status in the eyes of his peers. Even the most forthright among us are “on stage” more than we would like to admit, whether or not we are consciously aware of it. As with everything in life, however, when the desire to impress others gets too extreme, it can be debilitating — even fatal — to the professional purveyor of puffery.
The desire for status starts early in life when young children begin playing with one another. Then, in elementary school, peer pressure all but consumes them. It’s a force that eats away at the personalities of children year after year, all too often resulting in lost souls. Worse, as a result of yielding to peer pressure, millions of kids have become fatalities through such negative activities as drug abuse, drunk driving, and gang violence.
I mention gang violence because the desire for status recognition cuts across economic barriers. Inner-city gang members strive for conformity and acceptance — all too often expressed through violent behavior — as much or more than do suburban, mid-level executives vying for membership in a prestigious country club. Indeed, eliminate the phenomenon of peer pressure and our prisons would probably be half empty.
Those who are lucky enough to survive elementary, middle, and high school usually begin the long road to freedom from peer pressure in their mid to late twenties. Some are fortunate enough to travel this road rather quickly, though they are decidedly in the minority. For most, it is a very long journey, and many people make little or no progress throughout their lives.
Ultimately, peer pressure evolves into self-pressure, i.e., the pressure to constantly calculate one’s moves based on how they will make him look in the eyes of others. In suburbia, it spawns affectation — the desire to make others believe that one possesses wealth or qualities he does not really possess. Having lived in the suburbs of many cities throughout the world, I can assure you that this desire knows no geographic or ethnic boundaries.
Generally speaking, people who suffer from affectation to an extreme have lost their identities. They are, in fact, the most imprisoned people on earth. While doing their best to maintain an air of confidence, it is usually quite obvious that they are extremely insecure people.
Affectation almost always metastasizes into an unhealthy attachment to material belongings, which becomes yet another form of self-imprisonment. Buddha warned of this danger when he said that “All unhappiness is caused by attachment.”
I like material possessions as much as anyone else, but I am no longer obsessed by them as I was when I was much younger. Materiality pales in comparison to having a worthwhile purpose in life.
Think of peer pressure, conformity, and the desire for status as your mortal enemies — because they are. The more a person focuses on impressing people, the less likely he is to be accepted or respected. A better idea is to use your energy to focus on developing the qualities that bring genuine acceptance and respect, such as strengthening your moral and ethical infrastructure and creating value for others.
Because we’re human, neither you nor I will ever completely conquer status consciousness, but that should not stop us from trying. The alternative is to have people laughing at you behind your back — as I know many people do with Peter — and that’s something that anyone with dignity should never want to subject himself to.